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Okay, let's talk about 'silencing'

by Jeremy Hooper

KirstenpowersWhen I started this week, I didn't know that the topic of supposed "silencing," particularly as it applies to pro-LGBT people who dare to engage in public debate with the other side, would be such a major focus. But after tweeting my frustration with Fox News' resident left-leaner Kirsten Powers and her new book from uber-conservative publisher Regnery, which I believe helps the far-right (and particularly the anti-LGBT far-right) sell an anti-intellectual narrative that it very much wants to sell in order to save face, I have spent countless hours (that I really don't have available to me) dealing with ad hominem conservative Tweeters, bad argumentation from "silence"-insisters, and a whole lot of pontification on this particular topic. So let's talk about it.

Let's only focus on anti-LGBT claims of "silencing," since (a) this site only focuses on that particular part of the "culture war," and (b) this is the arena where the "silencing" claim gets the most play and traction these days. For those of us who do this kind of work, it's a very old concept. The anti-LGBT movement have been talking (and talking and talking and talking and...) about their supposed "silencing" for years. Especially since the aughts, when LGBT rights really began to come into favor, the anti-LGBT movement and likeminded conservatives have been putting out documentaries with titles like "Speechless: Silencing The Christians" and books with variations on the words "bully" or "criminalizing Christianity." The idea is that LGBT rights activists have risen to such prominence that we have been able to surpass the true suppression and literal bullying that we faced for decades (centuries, even) and have instead become tyrannical ourselves. It's a wrongheaded idea. Worse than that, it's a purposeful idea that they are selling in order to keep suppressing us in a new way.

First let's start with the idea that suppression is even what we want to do. It would be harder to find anyone who has been around 21st century LGBT activists more than me. I've been in the conference rooms and on the conference calls. I've worked as a political consultant with the largest and most well known LGBT orgs (HRC, GLAAD, etc.). I've been in the campaign war rooms. I count journalists and politicos and activists of every stripe as friends as colleagues. I've attended the conferences, and I've received each year's copy of "the agenda." While there very well may be some LGBT people who would like to silence or criminalize others, the LGBT movement, as a movement, is not out to do so. And frankly, most LGBT activists I know are not even all that bothered by people's personal beliefs. Most of us laugh off what we perceive as wackiness, by and large. If people want to be outwardly anti-LGBT until their final days, most of us find that sort of sad and very much a waste of time, but few LGBT people are (and no LGBT organization is) out to silence their wishes. Have at it! Spend your weekends stomping your feet and protesting. We will enjoy our civil rights.

Let's also talk about the underlying idea that we are now "the militants." It's wrong on its face, and offensive by its nature. But more than that, it's also nothing new. The anti-LGBT movement called us "militants" even back when we had virtually no political power, few staunch political allies, and no major wins to celebrate. The idea that we are sinister and scheming and on the prowl is as old as this fight itself; it has simply shape-shifted alongside the trajectory of the fight. This, the fact that it has always been a tactic of our opposition, speaks undeniably (and loudly) to the obviously strategic way they're applying it now. Their strategy has always demanded our caricaturization as a band of radicals out for more than we deserve. It used to be "the children" we were after; now it's "free speech." Under this overheated sun, there is nothing new.

Next let's look closer at how obvious of a tactic it is. Everyone is familiar with discrimination, what it looks like while it's happening, and how it tends to play out once the oppressed minority overcomes major challenges. We've seen that movie, and so has the opposition movement. No one wants to be remembered for the crude and cruel fight that they waged against a minority population's deserved rights and protections. No one wants to be the character in the documentary whose past self is scored with ominous music while a notable civil rights pioneer talks about how nasty things were then. So what's the answer for the most obvious players of this role in this, a modern civil rights fight? Simple: You flip the script so that you are supposedly "the victim." The seeming hope among modern anti-LGBT forces is that by making this "silencing" thing the coda to this fight, they can both keep the fight over our human rights open for eventual rollback or at least readjustment (like the abortion debate), and then ultimately free themselves of the usual way the reflective patterns flow following any civil rights fight. They want to put distance between what they actually did to us and our ability to overcome it, so they are making it sound like we are now doing something equally nasty to them. This is all in hopes that people will forget why, exactly, the anti-gay religious right earned the reputation that it did. (Good luck with all that).

Let's round out by talking about how jaw-droppingly silly the "silencing" idea is. In the American marketplace of ideas, we are free to say and do just about anything. That means all of us. When a political movement pushes bad legislation, others have every right to rise up and say, "no more, no thank you—and seriously, how dare you for even trying!?" Or when a public figure makes nasty comments, others have every right to stand up and say that the comments are indeed nasty, unfair, out of line, and worthy of scorn. When a company is found to be using its profits to foster political causes that some find objectionable, those some have every right to call out that company and/or take their money elsewhere. And so on and so forth. The person or place or thing that's under scrutiny then has equal right to stand up and defend. The other side can then go back and pick apart the defense. This can keep on for awhile. Maybe even forever. The most likely scenario, however, is that one side's arguments will ultimately prove to be more compelling, and the robust debate will lead to a resolution of some sort. Again, this is a marketplace of ideas, and every last one us has the opportunity to engage within it.

The true irony (or deceit, more aptly) of the anti-LGBT "silencing" meme is that it is the one that is truly dismantling conversation. KirstenpowersNowadays, the anti-LGBT and likeminded crowd rushes to play that "free speech" card within the first seconds of any public conversation. "A" will say something anti-gay then many different pro-gay "B's" will organically rise up and voice objection, and within hours "C"onservatives will fill social media and Fox News and talk radio with incessant claims of how "B" is supposedly attacking "A's" "free speech." It literally takes no more and no longer than that for the offended people to be shamed for feeling offended. If you are a pro-gay person (or even merely a tolerant person) who sees a right and/or need to speak out against another's words or actions that threaten, undermine, or somehow offend gay people (and our fiends and families and allies, etc.), then the Fox News and talk radio and Dana Loesch and Twitchy crowd instantly and uncaringly turn your speech and expression into an anti-American thought crime. It doesn't even matter if the controversy raises or lowers the controversial person or organization's profile, therefore giving them more attention and more opportunities to speak; "silencing" is a concept they apply independently of volume or platform size. It also doesn't matter if the pro-LGBT engagement is rationally focused and fairly applied; the tactic doesn't have time or concern for nuance.

It's infuriating for those of us who have lived it. Though I will say, based on my own anecdotal studies as someone who spends time thinking about these things, that I believe this "silencing" meme to be something that plays far better in the relatively small world of cable news and talk radio and Twitter than it does with the general public. If you tell the average person that it's gay people who are silencing the very religious people who have been fighting a "culture war" against them for decades, most seem to react with confusion, at best, and a pointed roll of the eyes, more likely. I find this to be true not only here in NYC, where one might expect it, but also with folks from the very small and quite rural Tennessee town in which I grew up. Even people who are far removed from pride parade attendance or anything that even resembles a Democratic donkey seem to grasp the silliness of a world where the still-bullied and still-denied gay teens of today grow into the iron-fisted adults of tomorrow. People understood how "It Gets Better" spoke to gay lives, but "Those Bettered Gays Turn Brutal" seems to be a tougher sell.

And I also know that our ever-louder and ever-coarsening opposition is playing this "silencing" card because their cause is now withering on a mound of all of the other flawed tactics and campaigns they've tried to wage at the expense of our rights, protections, and well-being. The more they talk (and talk and talk and talk and..) about silence, the more I hear their true cries of desperation.



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